The death of John Martyn (born Ian David McGreachy) this morning at the age of 60 will mostly go unnoticed in the US. It won't in Scotland nor here at this little blog. His health had suffered greatly over the past several years, but it is such a shame to see him go and it's a piece of personal heartbreak.
Martyn was the lesser-known of a circle of great musicians that included Richard Thompson (who played on Martyn's albums Bless the Weather and Solid Air), Eric Clapton, and Martyn's close friend Nick Drake.
He developed his own style of folk/blues/psychedelic/jazz. It became a unique sound - especially after his rather straightforward Scottish folk albums from the 1960s - when he turned his attention to a mix of psychedelia and jazz. He had a melancholy, usually soft voice - more a musical instrument itself than a conveyer of literal messages - that he would turn into growls in some of his more psychedelic blues moments. But he could also produce the gentlest of songs, like his lovely cover of "Singin' in the Rain."
That early 1970s period of jazz-psyche with Echoplex touches of electronic experimentation produced the best of his albums: Bless the Weather (1971); Solid Air (1973), the song of the album title a tribute to his friend and equally brilliant musician, Drake, who died tragically in 1974; Inside Out (1973); and Sunday's Child (1975). One World from 1977 is also a terrific album, but a move away from the psychedelic folk of the previous four (though Lee "Scratch" Perry was involved with the reggae-tinged One World!). That's the very best of his work and some of the finest music of the 1970s from the UK. The four earlier albums from the 1960s have great moments in their own right - and could stand alone as a superb British folk career - as do the several albums from the early 1980s. By the mid-1980s, however, his music became temporarily infected with some of that Pastorius-bass and Seagull-synth sound that turned the mainstream of that decade into musical mush.
I first picked up Inside Out working in a used record store two decades ago in undergrad college days. I didn't know anything about him at the time, but the record became one of my favorites and led to a collection of everything by him from 1967 to 1984. When I played his albums for others, the reaction usually wasn't one of much interest. I felt he was my secret, at least far away from Scotland in central Texas, and his moments of gentle beauty and other moments of Scottish-psyche trippiness became intimate, solipsistic corners of my musical landscape, rivaled in this dimension probably only by Arthur Lee. I have to thank my friend Eric for understanding and sending me the news of Martyn's death.
I finally saw Martyn in concert in a small-ish club in Paris in about 1990. I invited friends along. They didn't quite get him - again, not much interest. I think he was and is probably like that in general. Solid Air is now considered one of the greatest British albums of all time. But that characterization of any of his work seems so alien to Martyn's personality and music. The aim wasn't legendary status or fame or fortune. It was a kind of musical intimacy sung from deep in his beautiful soul. And I think those of us who feel that intimacy are truly lucky we've come across it. We'll miss John terribly.